What does academic life after corona look like?

So, the autumn term 2020 is already up and running. The spring of 2020 goes down in history as a time marked by great changes. First confusion, then rapidly increased spread of infection, which culminated in two weeks where the number of deaths in Sweden with established covid-19 infection were around 100 per day.

By then, large sections of society and industry had been forced to close or radically reduce their operations. Travel had been minimized. Teaching at the nation’s upper secondary schools and higher education institutions took place entirely in digital form. Many, including BTH, had closed their campuses to students. We mostly worked from home and gradually got used to the available digital aids. Teachers who had not previously had digital teaching were forced to make rapid adjustments and learn new skills. In short – we took a major leap into the digital world of the future. Very few if any believe that this new modus operandi will vanish as soon as the pandemic has been defeated. It is time to start reflecting on what we can expect from the new reality.

The Swedish vice-chancellors have just concluded a two-day conference, which means that we met physically for the first time in six months. For me personally, it was my first train journey in as long. We washed and sanitized our hands and kept the distance. Anyone with cold symptoms stayed home. That’s how we have to live for a long time to come, maybe this whole school year. In order for this to be sustainable and for us not to suffer from increased mental illness and other work environment problems, we must gradually try to return to meeting physically, although not every day. All higher education institutions have also started conducting parts of the teaching on campus again. We follow the same protocol: hand hygiene, distance, staying home in case of symptoms, and a number of measures to minimize the risk of infection spreading on campus. For those learning instances where it does not work to keep the distance, we must take additional precautionary measures such as face masks or visors. We also have smaller group sizes than usual and try to avoid having too many students on campus at the same time. In this way, we will face the pandemic with perseverance that lasts as long as it takes. The hope is, of course, that we will be able to gradually increase the number of activities on campus – the future will tell.

So what do we bring with us when we eventually enter the new reality “post corona”? Even though we all desire to return to campus, it is hard to imagine that we will spend as much time in the office as before. Many of us did not really spend much time in the office itself, but mostly in different meeting rooms. I’m sure many of these encounters will remain in cyberspace. This especially applies to such meetings where the participants come from different parts of the country. Or even the world – many international conferences have also been held digitally in the spring and summer. It usually works just as well, or at least well enough to meet at Zoom, and there are also other benefits than not having to travel. In the same way, we will use digital elements in the teaching – “blended learning” – to a much greater degree than before. We will record lectures in suitable packages, and more rarely speak live with a large audience. Instead, it will be more of direct contact with students in small groups, perhaps with workshops about what they already before the meeting took part in digitally. The quality is unlikely to suffer, and accessibility will also be significantly better if seminars and other relevant teaching and meeting elements are made available digitally after they have been held. The effect is potentially revolutionary when it comes to international events.

If the reality will continue to be more digital, this of course means that travel will decrease compared to before. It is hardly at the low level that applies right now, but perhaps it is conceivable that long travel will be halved – especially long-haul flights? In that case, it will have a positive effect on the environment, even if we consider that the internet also consumes a lot of energy that is not fossil-free in all parts of the world. If we spend less time in our offices, it also means that we have to think about how we use our facilities. What kind of premises will we need in the coming decades? Will large lecture halls gape empty in the future? Should we instead only meet the students in so-called “Active Learning Classrooms”? Maybe it is also the type of room we have our physical meetings in, even when there is no teaching? I think we will make demands on the physical meeting – it must be an added value to teach and to meet IRL. Of course, we are social beings and the meeting between people has an intrinsic value in itself. But it probably does not have to be eight hours a day every day. In the same way, I believe that the physical seminar will continue to exist, but far from every lecture in every course. Reasonably, this leads to a reduction and change in the need for premises, and we must take this into account when we consider future campus development. Perhaps the need for your own room will also decrease, many may be able to choose to work at home when you have tasks that require privacy and where interaction with employees is minimal. This is a controversial issue, but it must be asked in order to ensure that we make the best use of taxpayers’ money. The question has also been asked by UKÄ’s CEO Anders Söderblom (the link is in Swedish).

When it comes to future teaching, I am convinced that the proportion of digital elements will be significantly greater. This will contribute to increased quality and throughput – partly by giving students access to recorded material in appropriate portions, and each individual can spend the time required – partly by teachers being able to devote more of their time to direct contact with individual students and student groups. I also believe that the proportion of distance learning programs and, perhaps most importantly, distance learning courses will increase. We should also work towards a more flexible and modular teaching system, where courses are put together into course packages, course packages become short programs and longer programs are put together from shorter ones. One model is that a five-year education is divided into 2 + 1 + 2 years and a four-year master’s degree becomes 2 + 1 + 1. Some parts may be on campus, others remotely. You should be able to take a break between the different parts without being thrown out. We need to get better at thinking new, even though it can be very difficult to get the parts together into logical wholes and to make our planning manageable.

As stated above, I see in front of me that the presence on campus will continue to be less when the pandemic is over than it was before we went into the distance mode. This is of course in contrast to our desire to have a lively campus and vibrant academic environments. Here we seem to end up in an impossible equation. I think technology should come to the rescue. The boundaries between physical presence and virtual ditto gradually become smaller. I think many of us already feel that the border has been pushed forward. Software has improved and our “technology skills” has increased. With the next or next after that generation in place, maybe we can put together teaching or research groups from different parts of the world and it feels like everyone is in place? It will hopefully never completely replace the physical encounter. We are social and curious creatures, and we are inspired by meeting other people and by new cultures. The balance between the physical and the virtual meeting will change, but the question is how much? Could it even be more of both?

28 August 2020

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